Obituary: Philip Dawson, bomber Command pilot and lawyer

Philip Dawson
Philip Dawson
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Born: 7 May, 1920, in Aberdeen. Died: 1 December, 2012, in Aberdeen, aged 92.

As a survivor of some of the most delicate and dangerous missions of the Second World War, Philip Dawson knew just how fine the line is that lies between life and death.

As a pilot in Bomber Command he got used to sharing a room with a fellow flier only for his companion’s bed to remain empty next morning.

Flying Wellingtons, converted to blow up marine mines, he was aware that a small miscalculation in altitude or speed could mean the difference between success and disaster: just slow and low enough to detonate the explosive but not to get caught in the blast.

Factor in being shot down twice and it’s little surprise that he embodied the maxim he later adopted: to give back what he got out of life.

He said it was just luck that he had survived but his subsequent philosophy led to a long and successful career as an advocate, international recognition in the curling world and a passionate interest in charity work, championing youngsters through a range of ventures.

He was barely out of his teens himself when he enlisted in the Royal Air Force in 1940 but already had a proud family heritage of public service. His mother, Helen Tawse, had been a school teacher before the First World War and his father, Col James Dawson DSO of the 6th Battalion Gordon Highlanders, was a highly decorated soldier who served in the Great War and then became director of education in Aberdeen.

Dawson, who was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School where he was an all-round sportsman and played rugby for the first team, gained his MA before serving with the RAF as a ground gunner at Croydon during the Battle of Britain.

He then trained as a Wellington bomber pilot and completed two tours of duty – a total of 30 missions – when the life expectancy of the Bomber Boys, average age 22, was just six weeks.

Twice his plane was shot down on missions but twice he managed to get home, the aircraft crash landing just short of the aerodrome on each occasion. The dashingly handsome young airman was injured in both incidents. The first crash left him with a large scar on his upper lip so he disguised it by growing a moustache. The second time he lost a tooth in his lower jaw. So he gave up cigarettes and resorted to pipe which he wedged in the gap.

He was later posted to the Middle East but, during a refuelling stop in Malta, he was caught up in the merciless German bombing campaign of the island. Unable to get out, he spent six months in Malta as a ground gunner.

Eventually, at midnight one night, he left for North Africa on a Merchant Navy ship. That same night enemy U-boats and planes destroyed half of the fleet that had set sail from Malta. He had had another lucky escape.

Dawson, who also served in Italy, went on to complete 48 missions flying a Wellington DW1 specially converted for minesweeping duties. The strategically important Suez Canal had been strewn with mines and the Wellington bomber had been redesigned as a new weapon with which to tackle the explosive charges and keep the route open.

About 15 of the aircraft were modified with a massive hoop suspended underneath the fuselage. An electrical generator provided power to the coil creating a magnetic field that could detonate the mines. But in order to trigger the explosions the Wellingtons had to make a slow, low-level sweep along the canal. If they passed too quickly the mission would fail and the mines would not ignite, too slowly and they could blow up their own plane. It was an amazing feat of nerves and dexterity.

He served in the RAF until 1946 and later recalled the cramped and uncomfortable conditions in the Wellington bombers, saying: “It was noisy as hell and there wasn’t much of in the way of upholstery. Just six of a crew in helmet and earmuffs hoping their luck would hold long enough for them to come home.”

After his return home he became an Air Training Corps gliding instructor at Aberdeen Airport and studied law at Aberdeen University, becoming a solicitor with local firm Alexander and Gillan.

He later joined Aberdeen’s James and George Collie solicitors where he became a senior partner. He retired in 1986 and was president of the Society of Advocates in Aberdeen from 1987-89.

Meanwhile, sport had continued to play a significant part in his life. He took up curling after the war, helped to develop an Aberdeen curling rink and, during the 1980s, was president of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club, director of Aberdeen Curling Club at Stoneywood and president of the World Curling Federation.

He chaired the Aberdeen Association of Social Services, now known as VSA, and was involved in its Linn Moor School, a residential facility for children with special needs, particularly those with autism and related disorders. It was through that link that he helped to set up Easter Anguston Farm, a venture supporting people with learning disabilities through training on a working farm. Though he worked with various organisations, including the Children’s Shelter, Aberdeen Lads’ Club and the Scout Association, Easter Anguston became his favourite charity.

His experiences in the Second World War had undoubtedly shaped the rest of his life, ensuring that he lived it to the full and did what he could to help others. They also ensured he remained an aviation expert and aficionado. Hugely proud of his history, his study was filled with model aircraft and books on aviation. He took every edition of Flight magazine and donated many items including numerous log books to the RAF museum at Hendon.

Three years ago he was a guest of honour at the unveiling of a war memorial at Aberdeen Airport which was taken over by the RAF during the war and, at the age of 90, was made a Burgess of Guild for his contribution to the city of Aberdeen.

Widowed many years ago by his wife Iola, he is survived by his second wife Marlene, his sons Tony and Philip and grandchildren Fraser and Fiona.

ALISON SHAW